Ordinarily, a year is far too short a time to make a difference in the history of American religion, culture, or politics. But then 2017 was not by any measure an ordinary year.
Two months after my book Getting Religion was first published, Donald Trump was elected president, an upset that sent populist shock waves throughout this country and Western Europe. Although Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million to Hillary Clinton, the Republicans won control of both chambers of Congress plus a majority of state houses and state legislatures—the largest defeat for the Democratic Party since 1928.
However, Trump finds his administration enveloped by billowing scandals; his White House staff riven by leaks and rivalries; his political agenda stalled and his policies incoherent. Several of the president’s former and current advisers—including his son-in-law Jared Kushner—are under investigation by both a Senate subcommittee looking into Russian efforts to manipulate the election in Trump’s favor, and by a special prosecutor investigating possible criminal acts by Trump associates. Trump himself has been accused of attempting to suborn former FBI Director James Comey before firing him shortly after taking office.
Trump’s swift and unexpected ascent to the nation’s highest office followed religious, class, and demographic fault lines that were not in evidence only a few years ago. His success was fueled in part by years of political non-cooperation in Congress, by the recognition that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were no less beholden than the Republicans to Wall Street and the rich, and especially by steady erosion of white middle-class workers’ economic status, prospects, and self-respect, particularly in the financially pressed sectors of the Middle West. When Trump blamed Mexican immigrants and “radical Islamic terrorists” for the nation’s ills, these economic outsiders applauded. When Trump promised to make America “great” again, they heard “prosperous” and “white” again.
Once more “it was the economy, stupid,” even though President Obama had brought the country slowly out of economic crisis. It was also about social and geographic location—“us” against the coastal elites. But despite data showing Trump capturing the “religious vote,” very little of it was about religion.
Much—far too much, in my view—was made in the media of exit polls showing that 81 percent of Evangelicals voted for Trump despite his three marriages, his boastful womanizing, and his meager Christian credentials. Trump was baptized a Presbyterian as a child but it was clear that, for him, Calvin Klein had more name recognition than John Calvin. Asked during the campaign if he ever asked God for forgiveness, Trump notoriously replied, “I don’t think so.... I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
Two Evangelicals with bold-face names—Billy Graham’s son Franklin and Jerry Falwell’s son Jerry Jr.—claimed to know that Trump had recently become a serious Christian, but there was no evidence that he ever reads the Bible, attends church, or looks to someone as his pastor. But there was considerable evidence to the contrary. During the campaign he identified his “spiritual adviser” as Paula White, a former model turned Orlando televangelist, sometime mega-pastor, and fulltime “life coach” who, like Trump himself, has been married three times.
Trump’s embrace by Graham and Falwell Jr. was manifestly political and both were rewarded with roles at his inauguration. But neither man exercises anything like the clout their more gifted and famous fathers enjoyed. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the 2016 election was how few local Evangelical pastors got involved in either campaign. A great many of them lost political heart after Texas Senator Ted Cruz, an authentic Evangelical Christian and certified political conservative, dropped out of the Republican race.
Why then (if the exit-poll numbers survive later analysis), did four out of five voters who identified as Evangelicals choose Trump? Unfortunately, exit polls alone cannot tell us that. Like many other Americans, white Evangelicals felt they had three unpleasant choices. They could choose to stay home election day, which nearly 39 percent of American voters did; they could overlook their dislike or distrust of Hillary Clinton and her party and vote for her anyway. Or they could embrace Trump despite his evanescent religious credentials and his manifest character flaws.